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(Cattail Music 2004 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/8/2004)
In the music business, it pays to be versatile, to be able to play different kinds of music, since the opportunities for performing in any single genre tend to be limited. But at the same time, this can be confusing to audiences, who tend to like their performers to play one kind of music and maintain the sound that was won those fans in the first place.
This week, we have a CD by a performer who shows his versatility by jumping from one style to quite another. Scott Ainslie's new release is called The Feral Crow.
Scott Ainslie, who was formerly based in North Carolina but relocated to Vermont recently, has developed a reputation as a blues historian, being the author of a book on Robert Johnson and having produced an instructional video on Johnson's guitar technique. His previous releases also tended toward traditional blues. But his new CD is very much in the singer-songwriter vein, imbued with some lyrics in the folk protest song tradition. It's also a particularly fine example of an intelligent, literate singer-songwriter with very tasteful instrumental backing.
As Ainslie points out in an interview, before he got into playing the blues and being a blues historian, he had developed a reputation as an old-time style fiddle player and clawhammer banjo player, and said that before that, he was a folk musician. Now that comes around again on The Feral Crow, and the result is a memorable album that recalls the style of Richard Shindell, with Ainslie's rich baritone voice and often powerful lyrics, touching on subjects from a motorcycle accident to the kidnapping of a South African human rights advocate, with even a couple of love songs.
He is joined by a excellent backing band of musicians from the Woodstock, New York, area, including bassist and producer Scott Petito, plus drummer Jerry Marotta, who has worked with people like Peter Gabriel, Marc Shulman on guitars, Peter Vitalone on keyboards, and Leslie Ritter, a fine singer-songwriter in her own right and formerly half of the duo Amy and Leslie, on backing vocals.
In Ainslie's own publicity material for the CD, he notes that even though it is not the blues stylistically, the songs touch on some of the same subjects. But The Feral Crow is more expansive lyrically. These are songs that Ainslie has been working on for a long time, some of which go back to the 1980s. There are also some semi-topical songs, including a song for peace, and one about the aftermath of Vietnam. And musically the songs get into some fairly sophisticated territory that is a long way from three-chord blues.
The CD commences with a song called Exit 178. One needs to go to Ainslie's website to find out the background behind the unconventional lyrics of this piece. It turns out that the title is a reference to an exit on Interstate 85 near Durham, North Carolina, where one night, as he was driving along, he came upon a motorcyclist who had had an accident and was lying on the road. Ainslie and his friend tried their best to stop traffic. <<>>
Perhaps the CD's most pointed protest song is Don't Obey, which Ainslie said was inspired by a line by author C.P. Snow, "More heinous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than ever have been committed in the name of rebellion." He invokes some of the events of recent history in this powerful song. <<>>
In the more conventional area of a love song is Over Again, which seeks to take things back to the way they were before a breakup. <<>>
The title track The Feral Crow is another protest song, in this case about a particularly destructive mining technique in West Virginia, it speculates on how it affects one particular species of wildlife. Ainslie combined a spacey synthesizer ambience with his traditional clawhammer-style banjo. <<>>
Another song that was inspired by the news is It's My World Too, about steelworkers in Pennsylvania who lost their jobs to the forces of globalization. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is another song that takes up the topics addressed by protest singers over the years, the Vietnam War. In this case, it takes a more hopeful tone. The song is called Rice Grows Again in Vietnam, which was inspired by a refugee Ainslie got to know. <<>>
Another song that pretty much requires the explanation provided by Ainslie's website is Confession. It's about the kidnapping and murder of South African civil rights leader Stephen Biko. It was inspired by the South African Truth Commission, who was looking into the crimes of the apartheid era. In the case of Biko's murderers, they never convicted. <<>>
Looking for a Rose is a tasteful philosophical song whose thesis that to get at the roses, you have to go through the thorns. <<>>
Bluesman Scott Ainslie has definitely made a stylistic shift on his new CD The Feral Crow, but it shows his versatility. Far from being a bluesy album, the new CD is a particularly fine example of the singer-songwriter genre, with Ainslie doing both jobs very well. His lyrics are articulate and often powerful, and his vocal style is pleasingly warm. Add that to the very tasteful backing musicians, and one has a memorable album even in the very crowded singer-songwriter field.
Our grade for sound quality is an unqualified "A." It's one of those now increasingly rare examples of great care being taken with the sonic presentation, and the temptation was resisted to pump up the volume on the CD. It's a treat on a good sound system.
Irrespective of Scott Ainslie's reputation in the blues, his new CD The Feral Crow shows that he can also be counted upon as another worthy example of how the current period has become the golden age of singer-songwriters, with new music rivalling anything from the Sixties or Seventies.
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